Art exhibits are supposed to be cultural events, and they are. But every once a while, they can be life-changing.
Thanks to “Shinto,” the current exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Art, I now know that I have a historic work of art.
Aged wood, fragile (coming apart, actually) and in much need of repair and restoration, it is nevertheless a genuine piece of history, and learning about it has been quite a voyage.
I’d been meaning to do some research on it, but there never seemed to be enough urgency to get me going. Until, that is, I received my copy of the March/April 2019 issue of the Cleveland Museum of Art members magazine.
In that publication about the museum's current show, “Shinto: Discovery of the Divine in Japanese Art,” are illustrations of works in the show. Imagine my surprise when one of those works looked awfully familiar. In fact, all I had to do was look up to see what appeared to be its kith and kin.
Weird, huh? You don’t know the half of it.
Five or so years ago, my aunt told me she was moving to Hawaii to be with her daughter and leaving her household goods behind. She wanted me to come to the house she was abandoning and take what I wanted. Anything left would go to charity.
To shorten a rather longish story of a wild trip that included a “ground blizzard” and a stay at a hotel in North Carolina that bore an uncanny resemblance to the one in “The Shining,” let’s just say things got interesting.
I took most of my aunt’s paintings (she trained at the Art Student’s League in New York in the 1940s), some pottery, silver, furniture and several pieces (and I do mean pieces) of Japanese art. I remembered seeing the items at her house in Connecticut in the mid-1960s, and I was amazed that she still had them, because they were falling apart.
Her daughter said they had been around ever since she could remember, and that my aunt had long admired Japanese art. I gathered up all the parts I could find and brought them home.
I reassembled the pieces and secured them with Elmer’s glue; a curator friend told me that if the pieces turned out to be important, that kind of glue won’t do any damage and can be removed.
That was my first lesson in art research and conservation: Never, ever do anything to an art or historical object to “fix” or “improve” it. If you must do something — to maintain structural integrity, for instance — only do what can be undone.
Lesson No. 2 was harder: trying to find out what they are. The task was initially hindered by the fact that I didn’t know what to call them; my aunt had died, so I couldn't ask her for more information. I looked on the internet for similar Japanese objects but found nothing.
My big break didn’t come until I saw that Cleveland magazine article. I sent pictures of my pieces to the museum media/marketing office, told them I was going to be doing research on them and writing a story on what I discovered.
Full disclosure: I had a bit of leverage here. Because I’m writing about works similar to those in “Shinto,” I was offered a visit with Kelley Notaro Schreiber, communications and media relations manager, and Sinead Vilbar, the “Shinto” exhibit curator. Under normal circumstances, the museum would refer all inquiries like mine to its research page: http://clevelandart.org/research/library/art-assessment.
Most museums have these tools. Before you call a museum, check to see if your object corresponds to items the museum has in its collection. Then go to the museum’s website and do a search for “research.” On that page, you may find links to sites that can give you auction estimates, restoration and/or conservation services.
For me, this was much easier because I was writing a story, and all the steps were shortened by direct involvement of the museum staff, who went to a lot of trouble for me — more, I expect, than they had foreseen. So it’s doubtful they’ll want to repeat the process any time soon.
Also, don’t expect the process to be like "Antiques Roadshow," where you go on TV and some “expert” gives you an instant value for your stuff along with a sound bite of history. The actual process of finding out about your object requires both brain and sweat equity.
When you start your research, don’t ask museum experts to tell you how much your piece is worth. I knew that, but Schreiber was quick to point out: “Per museum policy, the curatorial staff cannot provide appraisals of works of art for insurance or sales purposes.”
But if they believe your piece is significant, they can recommend places to contact next. You can research galleries and auction houses to see if they’ve ever sold anything that looks like your object. If it’s been auctioned in the recent past, there should be a record of its selling price.
Vilbar told me what she believed my pieces to be, and what period of Japanese history she thought they came from. She also spoke with Lou Adrean, head of research and programs at the Cleveland Museum of Art Ingalls Library, who gathered books and articles for me. Anyone can use the Ingalls Library; many museums offer library services.
Using what information you’ve gathered, present your query to the reference desk. If you schedule a consultation, bring good, sharply focused, well-lit photos of your object. If it’s a three-dimensional object, be sure to photograph all sides. Most smartphones have good enough cameras to do this, but you can also have some done by a professional. If your object turns out to be genuine and desirable, you’ll be glad you made the effort, as you’ll also need them for insurance purposes.
You should do your own research — or have it done by someone you trust — because if you decide to try to sell the piece, you’ll be informed about what you have, and you’ll feel more confident about the worth of an appraiser’s opinion.
A word of caution
There are some pitfalls that every collector should know. In a telephone interview with Adrean and Heather Lemonedes, museum chief curator, I found out about a few of them.
Prints by Salvador Dali are one example. Lemonedes said telling good Dali prints from bad is kind of a nightmare. “It’s very difficult because Dali signed blank pieces of paper. That’s like a minefield. I wouldn’t even want to get into that. But I could speak to … Picasso prints very easily."
People who think they have a Picasso print, for example, could take a picture, go to the Ingalls Library and consult the catalog raisonné, a compilation with images of all his works. “It has all of his known prints. [You] could find out if it’s an edition of 200 or an edition of 20,” Lemonedes said.
“It would also be useful to include dimensions,” added Adrean, “and we could find out what kind of paper it was printed on, which would be helpful in determining what the person has.”
“We are not appraisers,” Lemonedes stressed. “We are not here to authenticate someone’s collection. But if someone sends us a nice, high-resolution photograph, we can use it to get into the details, and perhaps tell if it’s a reproduction of a painting, for instance.”
Some forgeries are photographic reproductions on canvas, believe it or not, good enough to fool the naked eye. “If someone sends us a photograph that has a high resolution, we can dive down into it and see if it has pixels,” Lemonedes explained.
Ancient objects — Greek, Roman, Egyptian, Pre-Columbian — can be tougher to identify. “Pre-Columbian art is a very difficult area because there’s so much that’s made for the tourist trade,” Adrean warned.
“We can help find similar types of objects that a person could use for comparison and analysis,” he said. “But if someone was looking for authentication, we could refer them to links on the museum’s website. We wouldn’t have the credentials to do that.”
Lemonedes noted that the museum used to have an “Ask a Curator” day called First Thursday. “That ended about 15 years ago ... our curatorial team now is just too small.”
If you’re going to do research at the museum, don’t under any circumstances bring the object with you, unless you have approval to do so.
“We can’t have people walking into the museum … then walking out with works of art under their arms," Lemonedes said. "It would be a security nightmare.”
State of stability
I decided that my object was worth looking into having it conserved, which is different from having it restored.
Most museums don’t want an ancient object completely restored, which would mean bringing it back to its original condition. Especially a cultural object — not purely an art object — that had experienced historic care and treatment.
The best practice is to have it conserved, which means brought to a state of stability, no longer in danger of further loss and decay.
Northeast Ohio is lucky to have the Intermuseum Conservation Association (ICA) in Cleveland that will do estimates as well as conservation on a variety of art objects. You can see some of their work at http://www.ica-artconservation.org.
Right now, the artifacts that got me started down this road of research and inquiry are in the hands of the ICA, which is evaluating them for cost of conservation.
In the meantime, I’ve emailed pictures to several auction houses where I’ve seen similar pieces, and asked them for estimates.
While I wait, I’ll go back to the Cleveland museum and take another look at the “Shinto” exhibit.
Many of the objects on view are changing after this weekend, the halfway point of the show. Among the 125 works from nearly two dozen Japanese lenders, 20 objects are designated Important Cultural Properties (ICP) by the Japanese government, and each work is displayed for only six weeks. On Sunday, the museum closes the exhibit to make the changes, reopening it on Thursday.
I’ll be there. You never know what you might discover in an exhibit like this. You might even see something that will change your life.
Dorothy Shinn writes about art and architecture for the Akron Beacon Journal. Send information to firstname.lastname@example.org.